You may not be able to feel it, but you have a button in the middle of your back. In fact, if you have more than one child, you have one button for each.
As they’ve grown, your children have kept an eye on that button. They’ve analyzed, observed, and stored away information on that button for the day when it would come in handy. That day arrived the day you asked a question or made a comment – and the response made you see red. Blonk! Your button just got pushed.
Sometimes it’s triggered by a tone of voice or by a temper tantrum. Often it’s triggered by a show of apathy: “I don’t care. Whatever.” This is both a great offensive and defensive strategy on the part of teenagers. If they can set you off, they’ve gained a certain amount of power over you. The consequences may even be worth that one moment of realization that a word or two carries so much weight. For most teens, it’s a highly effective passive-aggressive jab.
On the other hand, by remaining non-committal, they can avoid making a bad choice, or starting an argument. It’s the difference between “Where do you want to go for dinner?” “Uh – How about McDonald’s?” “Why do you always pick the same place! Don’t you ever feel like something different?” – and – “Where do you want to go for dinner?” “I don’t care. Whatever.” It’s hard to argue with a non-answer!
Sometimes your button can be pushed without the use of words. All it takes is a well-timed shrug, a snort or grunt, or a certain flip of the hair. Your teen knows all too well what will set you off, and her timing is usually spot-on.
Button pushing almost always leads to undesirable consequences: a harsh exchange of words, an imposition of grounding, an order of “Go to your room!” So why do they do it? Part of it is that old bugaboo, differentiation. It’s another part of your teen separating from you. Unpleasant as it is for all involved, it’s a necessary step to adulthood. Think of it as testing the boundaries of the invisible fence.
Part of it might just be transferring the teen’s bad feelings at the moment over to a safe target: you. Because you’ve promised to love that teen no matter what, he feels like he can safely unload his frustrations onto you. Or maybe it’s not that noble – maybe it’s just a case of misery loves company.
Whatever the reason, the best reaction is always an understated one. However, that’s also practically impossible when the arrow has been custom designed to hit where it can do the most damage. You may get your feelings hurt, you may lose your temper, or you may be shocked at the depth of your reaction. Always keep in mind that you want to stay connected to your teen. Don’t let this become a guaranteed fight starter.
If you can calmly call it what it is, go for it. You could try something like, “When you give me that kind of an answer, I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if you really mean ‘whatever,’ or if you’re just saying that to bug me.”
If you can’t respond calmly at the time, bring it up later when you and your teen are both thinking with your rational brain and not the loaded-for-bear brain. Tell her you remember being a teen and driving your parents crazy with the same sort of answer. Let her know that from now on, if she says “Fine” or “Whatever” or “I don’t care,” you’re going to take it at face value and make a choice for her. Then be prepared to follow through. Sometimes teens really don’t care!
And sometimes they’re just pushing buttons.